Tom Leins reviews Monsters

DVD reviews of Monsters, The Door, Street Wars and Freight

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Paignton film critic Tom Leins encounters Mexican monsters, German parallel universes and Steven Seagal in this week’s DVD round-up.

Set six years after a NASA probe crash-landed in Mexico, spreading tentacled alien life forms across Northern Mexico, Monsters (Vertigo) follows photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) as he reluctantly escorts his employer’s stranded daughter Sam (Whitney Able) across the danger zone and back to the perceived safety of the US border. Buoyed by the possibility of securing a career-defining image on his travels, Kaulder focuses on the job at hand, only to grow closer than he expected to his companion. As the risks increase Kaulder finds himself all-too-willing to help Sam, but will his devotion to the cause cost him his life?

Much has been made of former CGI technician Gareth Edwards’ ingenious use of a low budget, and the first-time British director’s visual palette is truly remarkable in light of his meagre funds. After the slick-but-soulless corporate exercise that was Skyline (an allegedly low budget movie that cost over $10 million), Monsters (which cost around $500,000) reclaims the micro-budget monster movie for film purists. The central casting of real-life couple McNairy and Able imbues the film with a sweet-natured undercurrent rarely seen in disaster movies, and their burgeoning romance offers a welcome counterpoint to the unpredictable alien carnage elsewhere.

Although it lacks the monstrous power of a big money disaster movie, Monsters is still a remarkable feat, and the end-product is a testament to Edwards’ bold vision. The devil is definitely in the details, and Edwards’ vivid world is painstakingly fleshed out with quirky touches that add colour to the proceedings. After re-writing Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie rule-book with Monsters, it will be fascinating to see what Edwards comes up with when he reboots the Godzilla franchise next year.

Based on the novel Die Damalstuer by Akif Pirincci – an author widely regarded as Germany’s answer to Stephen King – The Door (Optimum) is a slick, unsettling thriller that explores what happens when an emotionally shattered man gets an unexpected second chance to redeem himself after a tragic accident involving his young daughter. David Andernach (Mads Mikkelsen) is a successful family man with an affluent suburban home. Despite the presence of his doting wife Maja, David prefers to wile away his afternoons romping with his kooky mistress Gia.

One day, after David promises his young daughter Leonie that he will go butterfly catching with her, he disappears for one of his sleazy trysts, and Leonie accidentally drowns in the family swimming pool.

Five years later, when his guilty conscience threatens to overwhelm him, a boozy, dishevelled David attempts to drown himself in the same pool, only to be rescued by a friend. Not long after, David finds himself led to a hidden tunnel by a butterfly, and is amazed when it leads him back in time, to the very day that Leonie died. It isn’t long before David encounters his doppelganger – with vicious consequences – and the impostor quickly insinuates himself into the parallel universe in an attempt to regain everything he lost. As you might expect, nothing is quite what it seems, and David’s new life soon reveals a dark undercurrent. With apparent nods to Don’t Look Now, Timecrimes and Fringe flipped into the mix, The Door has impeccable influences, and although it never quite rises above its cinematic inspirations, it remains an intriguing offering.

Street Wars (Optimum) is the latest instalment in Steven Seagal’s True Justice saga, in which the 60-something hard-man stars as Elijah Kane, a veteran Seattle cop whose elite unit keeps the mean streets safe from drug traffickers and hoodlums.

After an above-average pilot in the form of last year’s Deadly Crossing, the glorified cop-show lapses into formulaic nonsense, with an undemanding plot concerning a deadly street drug being foisted on clubbers by unscrupulous drug lords. The production values may be higher than those of Seagal’s recent Eastern European action movies, but the narrative is equally lazy, and the aging Seagal’s fight scenes have never looked so clumsy.

In truth, the real pleasure comes from witnessing Seagal’s self-indulgent interludes in between investigations. After practicing with a samurai sword in the first episode, Street Wars sees him playing blues guitar in his office for no apparent reason. As a late night TV show True Justice would be an appealing guilty pleasure, but released piecemeal on DVD the franchise is revealed as a shameless cash-cow, with swollen Seagal ripe for milking. Inevitably, in an effort to turn this storyline into a coherent movie, two separate episodes have been stitched together, with all the panache of a back-street surgeon. As Seagal-related TV shows go, it’s still better than the uneventful Cops-lite documentary realism of ‘Steven Seagal – Lawman’, but Street Wars is strictly for hardcore fans only.

After earning an appreciative audience on DVD, Pierre Morel’s brutal revenge thriller Taken has raised the benchmark for video vengeance, and offered a fail-safe formula for action-hungry filmmakers to try and replicate. Set and filmed on location in Leeds, human trafficking thriller Freight (Icon) is desperate to convince film fans that it is the UK’s answer to Taken. Unfortunately, ex-soap star Billy Murray (Johnny Allen in Eastenders) is no Liam Neeson, and his trawl across Yorkshire’s criminal underbelly in search of the Romanian gangsters who kidnapped his daughter lacks subtlety, flair and any other redeeming features. The script is particularly poor, and you will find more sophisticated dialogue in Murray’s lamentable ‘Injury Lawyers 4 U’ adverts!

While Taken earned a few unwelcome accusations of xenophobia for its treatment of Albanian sex traffickers, Freight is positively right-wing in its hostility towards Romanians, and the abundance of preposterous reactionary dialogue only makes matters worse. The mid-movie excursion into the vicious underground world of Romanian cage-fighting offers the film’s most visceral interlude, but the rest of the material just feels strangely grim. If you’re after a genuinely gritty, low-budget revenge movie, try Australian flick The Horseman on for size, as Freight offers few real pleasures. Alternatively, hang on until 2012 for Taken 2, which will see Liam Neeson run amok once more. As for Billy Murray, his next movie is titled Strippers Vs Werewolves…

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