Thursday, 17 January 2013

New(ish) Review: 'Texas Chainsaw 3D'

Alongside Night of the Living Dead and Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the most controversial horror classics of its time. Naturally, there were sequels. Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 played like a demented Warner Bros. cartoon compared to its gritty predecessor, while parts 3 (Leatherface) and 4 (The Next Generation) both acted as pseudo reboots with little regard for established chronology, and are best remembered for early appearances from Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey (my spellchecker just exploded). Then came the 2003 remake – the financial success of which not only led to a prequel (The Beginning), but also helped spark off the great horror ‘remakessance’ of last decade... good for it.

In other words, the complete disregard for continuity here rivals even the Highlander franchise (and I’m not just talking about discrepancies over how many words Chainsaw should technically be spelt with). So when this latest entry was announced as a direct continuation of the 1974 original – one that would ignore all previous intervening instalments – ears perked up. Compared to some desperate effort at wrangling any form of cohesiveness from this decades-old mess, a fresh start seemed like the best option. Of course, letting it rest in peace may have been preferable.          

John Luessenhop’s Texas Chainsaw begins during the immediate aftermath of Leatherface’s first cinematic killing spree, as a furious redneck lynch mob assaults the cannibalistic Sawyer family home and burns it to the ground, along with everyone inside... OR SO IT WOULD SEEM. Years later, young Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario) mysteriously inherits her newly discovered/deceased biological grandmother’s house in Texas. Taking her collection of stock character friends (the unfaithful lover, the slutty BFF, the goatee guy, the hitchhiker they almost ran over... oh yeah, that’ll work out great), Heather sets off for her new home, unaware of the seven-foot-tall, chainsaw-happy mongoloid living in its basement.

As you may have deduced from that synopsis, Texas Chainsaw initially doesn’t push many boundaries. Its characters can be fully analysed with a single disinterested facial expression (try Harry Hamlin’s one from Clash of the Titans), and when it’s not grossing you out with graphic kills, most scares are of the jumpy variety (“Eh, maybe if I keep looking down this pitch black corridor, nothing will spring out at me...”) which, though often startling, you’ll spot coming a whole film reel away. Needless to say, there are few surprises on offer, so don’t expect to have your mind completely shattered by the awesome sight of Dennis Hopper dual-wielding chainsaws again.  

Just bear with it for 40 minutes, though, because once the usual slasher flick conventions have been exhausted, Texas Chainsaw takes a detour and tries something new for its second half. Without getting into spoilers, Heather slowly discovers her ties to Leatherface and his murdered family, and the picture morphs into a revenge flick for its final bloody act. Welcome as this change-up is, there’s just one problem. In firmly establishing all these connections to Tobe Hooper’s film, the screenwriters open a big can of logistical worms.

This film is clearly set in 2012, 38 years after the original (further confirmed during its marketing campaign). Automatically, blatant and irrational errors in the time-space continuum crop up. As damage control, extraordinary lengths are gone to in covering up the 1974 date and stop us questioning obvious plot holes. Newbies might not have a problem, but the rest of us will be scratching our heads over a pretty heinous continuity implosion (what, is Leatherface pushing 70 now?). I hoped for an endgame twist or something (anything) to explain it all, but no such luck. To sum up: either The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is now meant to take place in the late 80s... or they dun srsly goofed.

Okay, you can overlook that kind of logical whoopsie, but moments where Texas Chainsaw drops the ball entirely can’t be avoided. The opening scene should have been a love letter to fans (it’s basically cameo heaven), but sadly plays out like a bad case of fan fiction. Elsewhere, when one character flees into a densely crowded carnival with Leatherface in hot pursuit, you’re prepared for a real chainsaw massacre. What should have been a wonderful explosion of Piranha 3D-aping gore, fizzles out with nary a drop of blood spilt. Come on, even Alligator II had a better carnival scene!

When it isn’t merely disappointing, Texas Chainsaw delves into the laughably awful. Apparently this particular  patch of Texas is protected by a grand total of three cops, so naturally only one of them is sent down into Leatherface’s dank basement lair (place looks like Dr. Freudstein’s hideout) with orders from his superior back at the station to bring up a “visual”. Then, in the single most inspired bit of product placement I’ve EVER seen, he pulls out an iPhone... and uses the camera as a live video feed. What follows is, well, there are no words to describe this scene’s inane genius. The hell am I watching, anyway? Sweded Aliens? “No, go on, it’s okay. Nothing to worry about. We’ve got Idris Elba watching you on the holomap. Promise. 

Ah, but what does it matter when such stupidity is rewarded with a gory payoff? I heard this was trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating in the states, but (carnival misfire aside) they can’t have left much out. Fans of the red stuff needn’t worry, as it’s a nasty one. The usual array of hammers, meat hooks and hatchets all get put to good use, alongside the titular power tool. Most of the flesh shredding is handled the old fashioned way with practical effects, though you’ll find some CG sprinklings thrown in (for flavour). These ‘enhancements’ never really convince, but shouldn’t detract too much from the experience... such as it is. 

But the same can’t be said for Texas Chainsaw’s cinematography. In direct contrast with the first film’s infamous documentary-styled filmmaking, this boasts a flawless, colourful and, unless I’m mistaken, digitally shot look that wouldn’t be out of place in a direct-to-video release... and that’s perhaps what hurts Texas Chainsaw the most. Vapid characters and brainless plots are par for the course, but it’s sad to see that ultra-grainy film quality – once synonymous with this iconic franchise – make a complete departure here.     

And I got to enjoy a whole extra dimension of blandness! Like the film in general, there’s little here to get excited about. In its defence, this might be the least murky 3D presentation I’ve seen (it’s certainly easy on the eyes), but there’s rarely enough genuine depth to justify the higher ticket price. Still, it’s fun for all those gimmicky moments you’d expect from this sub-genre (watch out for those teeth), and the part where Leatherface practically hammer throws his chainsaw at us deserves a gold medal.

Similar to Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Leatherface has never been associated with just one actor (although from a physical standpoint, Gunnar Hansen is hard to beat). Now played with borderline melancholic conviction (between bouts of chainsaw rage) by Dan Yeager, you can believe this is a lonely and weathered Leatherface many years down the line. From an Obi-Wanish point of view, he may have always been a tragic villain, but Texas Chainsaw marks the first proper attempt at exploring that sombre side of everyone’s favourite lumbering anthropophagus, until the savage killer crosses into anti-hero territory. Whether or not this succeeds (it’s a risky move) will likely become a source of much debate among veteran fans, but I think they pulled it off to darkly comic effect; and it goes some way in making up for even the film’s most grievous shortcomings.

In fact, I’d say the entirety of Texas Chainsaw is elegantly tinged with devilish humour, not unlike Tobe Hooper’s first entry was all those years ago. I’ve ragged on about its problems, but the film clearly knows what it is, who it’s aimed at and fully embraces its schlocky trappings with great enthusiasm. Frankly, there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

Just, you know, remember to tailor those expectations.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Late 2012 Recap

I did have at least one review planned for last month. Honest. It was meant to be finished by mid December, then Christmas, then New Year, and then and then etc. Short story made even shorter, I was trying something new – that would have begun an article series I’d long been mulling over – and it didn’t work. I don’t want to go into any overly specific details, but the words ‘pony’ and ‘tail’ may give you a fair inkling of what could have been. One day, I’ll have it cracked. Maybe.

But until I’m hit with the necessary creative epiphany, it’s back to business (using the term loosely there) as usual. To kick off 2013 in typically belated fashion, I figured I’d do a quick write-up for those films released during 2012’s twilight months that, despite seeing, I never actually sat down to review. Starting with:

Hey, whaddaya know?! This didn’t make me hate Shia LaBeouf! How’s that for a recommendation? Okay, I suspect most will remember Lawless for its frequently bloody lashings of ultraviolence (only accentuated by the grimy prohibition era backdrop) and Gary Oldman’s seven second cameo, but the undoubted highlight IS Guy Pearce. His corrupt special agent was easily the most grotesque and hateful villain of 2012 (and that hair, eurgh). All in all, a solid dose of historically themed blood ‘n’ thunder.

OR it’s just two hours of Tom Hardy grunting. I still can’t decide.

Did anyone going into Looper really know what to expect? Actually, that’s a dumb question. Lest we forget, the trailer did a great job of showcasing the upcoming sci-fi awesomeness that would ensue once future Bruce Willis and past 3rd Rock teamed up to bring down a malevolent time travel assassination agency. But then we all sat down to watch it and... Oh right, THAT’S what it’s about.

The false advertising was understandable, however. Getting bums in seats would have been a daunting challenge otherwise, lehmme tell you. But while its alarming genre shifts weren’t for everyone, Rian Johnson’s dark and uncompromising thriller proved successful, with gorgeous visuals, violent action and all the usual timey wimey shenanigans. I’m not sure the Willis-styled makeup applied to 3rd Rock was needed, but his performance shone through and convinced totally (right down to the patented ‘Brucey Smirk’).

And Jeff Daniels was in it. To elaborate further would be counterintuitive.   

I loved the first half of Casino Royale. When, funnily enough, it got to the actual casino part, I felt it lost momentum and could never quite match the first hour’s exciting and grounded spy story. Still good though! But alas, Quantum of Solace was squeezed from the 07 - 08 Writers Strike – splatting against the porcelain bowl, before slowly sliding into the waters of depressing mediocrity below. As if it couldn’t get any worse, MGM then almost went bust. Yeah, things weren’t looking too good for MI6’s finest.

But after an agonizing four year wait... possibly the best 007 adventure since GoldenEye finally arrived. Skyfall manages the daunting task of finding that tonal sweet spot between the gritty 2006 series reboot and the Bond of old – giving the large majority of fans exactly what they wanted, not least of which was Javier Bardem’s terrifying big bad (again, the hair). Sam Mendes pushing the PG-13 / 12A rating to its limits was a nice surprise too.      

It’s no secret that Craig would rather be doing anything else (somewhat matching Bond’s reluctant return to duty here), but he’s yet to show any clear signs of character fatigue (a la post-Goldfinger Connery). Hopefully he’s up for another assignment or two.     

Did you catch Ben Wheatley’s Kill List? Its tale of two hitmen whose initially routine contract assignment takes a harrowing turn for the worse was one of the most chilling horrors in recent years. I bring it up because Wheatley’s latest film, Sightseers, showcases another descent into madness... only one that’s handled completely differently.

Nobody likes caravanning. And if they do, they’re lying. For that reason alone, the killing spree Sightseers’ everyday British couple embark on to liven up their cross-country holiday is perfectly understandable. Wheatley’s script ensures it’s nothing less than the blackest of black comedy, while Alice Lowe and Steve Oram make for two disturbingly relatable anti-protagonists.

Meanwhile, the English countryside acts as a gorgeous distraction from your rapidly deteriorating moral compass. Shot with the grace of a Sergio Leone western, Wheatley takes full advantage of the widescreen aspect ratio and captures every aesthetically pleasant detail (alongside all the stomach churning stuff). Between picturesque views of rolling hills and the sight of a man’s face smashed open against a boulder, Sightseers should work quite well overseas as a blood-soaked tourism advert.    

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Spoiler Alert: IT’S TOO LONG.

I mean... c’mon. Nice as returning to Middle Earth with all its familiar faces is, this was overkill. I admit, attending a stupidly late showing of the HFR 3D version (which looked beyond awful, by the way) may have been a mistake in hindsight, but this bastard felt every single minute of its ungodly runtime. It was almost 1am by the time Bilbo finally left the Shire! I like to think the two guys a row ahead, who walked out after thirty minutes, went home to watch Willow instead. Not a terrible idea! 

But aside from a high risk of contracting deep vein thrombosis, The Hobbit did more right than wrong. Martin Freeman was fantastic as Bilbo, it’s like Ian McKellen never took off the pointy hat, and Richard Armitage must have received extensive training in the art of brooding. The remaining dwarven company generally blends into one indistinguishable beardy mass, but Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Graham McTavish have some particularly great moments.

And when it eventually did get going, the lighter tone of The Hobbit’s children’s book origins allowed for a number of highly imaginative set-pieces (such as the carnage that ensues in Goblin Town). It’s just a shame the long wait for this entertaining payoff will no doubt test the patience of many.

Ben Affleck is roughly two thirds jaw. That much is obvious. But despite what must be a distressing physical handicap, the man just knows how to direct moving pictures, as evidenced by Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

With Argo, he’s put together something special. A gripping story, memorable characters, perfectly judged pacing and just the right dose of injected humour comprise a triumph of good, old fashioned filmmaking that stylistically harks back to the very same decade of movies it’s set in. The cast is superb, featuring two particularly stellar turns from Alan Arkin and John Goodman, while Affleck himself continues to purge those haunting Daredevil memories. It’s hard to believe the featured assignment really happened, but it sure makes for great cinema (inevitable creative licence notwithstanding).

For me, it rivals The Grey and Dredd as last year’s overall best film. Do see.