Paignton film critic Tom Leins investigates an epic slab of world cinema carnage, an offbeat Los Angeles road-trip, a chilly exercise in slacker noir and a blood ‘n’ guts history lesson, in this week’s DVD round-up.
Director Kim Ji-Woon -whose previous film was the enjoyable screwball caper The Good, The Bad & The Weird -explores far darker territory with I Saw The Devil (Optimum), a vicious revenge thriller that examines what happens when the tables are turned on a demented psychopath who kills for kicks.
Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-Sik from Oldboy) prowls South Korea’s deserted highways looking for unsuspecting victims. As the film opens, the mad-man turns his unhinged attentions towards Joo-Yeon, the daughter of a retired police chief and girlfriend of super-cop Dae-Hoon (Lee Byung-Hun, GI Joe), with predictably grisly results. Distraught Dae-Hoon quickly distances himself from the police force’s official investigation, and vows to track down the murderer single-handedly, using his unique skill-set to make the maniac experience the same level of pain and suffering that Joo-Yeon felt. However, in doing so, Dae-Hoon risks embracing the dark side himself
To give you a rough idea of how brutal and unflinching I Saw The Devil actually is, the Korea Media Rating Board forced director Kim Ji-Woon to heavily re-edit the film for its domestic theatrical release, meaning that South Korean viewers have never actually seen the full uncensored version. (Thankfully the UK DVD release preserves the film in all its grisly (144 minute) glory!) At two-and-a-half hours long, I Saw The Devil could have been a draining experience, but director Kim Ji-Woon injects the proceedings with an unexpected level of gothic intensity, and his stylish, uncompromising vision is taken to the next level by committed performances from the two leading men. Provocative and demented, I Saw The Devil definitely isn’t for viewers of a sensitive disposition, but it is a tour-de-force in violent retribution, skilfully executed by a director at the top of his game.
Inspired by the life and times of Spartacus -a Thracian gladiator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic circa 73BC –Spartacus: Blood and Sand -The Complete First Series (Anchor Bay) is a graphic, hyper-stylized yarn that has achieved an appreciative TV audience thanks to its blend of bloody decapitations and sweaty sex. Essentially an eye-popping mash-up of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Zack Snyder’s 300 -with added soft-focus sex scenes to break up the relentless violence -Spartacus is a seriously bizarre TV show. However, you get the sense that Spartacus creator Steven S DeKnight (Buffy, Angel) and executive producers Robert G Tapert (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man) are all well aware how ridiculous the whole enterprise is, and take every opportunity to crank up the blood-loss and romping!
Thankfully, what Spartacus lacks in subtlety it makes up for in enthusiasm, and the series evolves into a sleazy swords ‘n’ sandals soap opera, chock-full of political wrangling, illicit sex and duplicitous dealings. Scottish actor John Hannah (The Mummy, Sliding Doors) is the chief culprit in the latter respect, as Batiatus, the unscrupulous owner of the brutal gladiator school where Spartacus trains. Welsh-born, Australia-based model-turned-actor Andy Whitfield acquits himself well as the heroic title character, but unfortunately the star’s involvement in the franchise has been curtailed by the diagnosis of early-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which has resulted in his role being re-cast for Series Two. When the dust settles, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a self-consciously trashy exercise in how low TV producers can stoop in the name of entertainment -and I mean that as a complement! It may be a guilty pleasure, but Spartacus is a pleasure nonetheless -just make sure that you check your brain at the door
On the morning of his 37th birthday, struggling novelist Michael (Adam Scott, Step Brothers) receives a cryptic telephone call from his shifty ex-junkie brother Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) asking for Michael to chauffeur him around Los Angeles County to attend a series of job interviews. So begins Passenger Side (Axiom Films), the latest movie from hotly-tipped indie filmmaker Matthew Bissonnette -the brother of aforementioned actor Joel. Despite harbouring suspicions of his brother’s motivations for undertaking the road-trip -he is convinced that Tobey is on a mission to score street drugs -Michael is happy to go along for the ride, even if it means postponing a romantic assignation with his enigmatic girlfriend.
Although the ‘mis-matched slacker road-trip’ genre has been flogged to within an inch of its life in recent years, Bissonnette imbues Passenger Side with an appealing sense of personality that sets it apart from other similar material. However, despite some excellent moments -not least the eye-opening ‘in-car entertainment’ provided by drug-addled prostitute early in the movie -Passenger Side is frustratingly under-written in places, and never quite manages to sustain its early comedic promise. That said, book-ended by slacker anthems Punks In The Beerlight (by the Silver Jews) and Hard Drive (Evan Dando), the soundtrack to the brothers’ offbeat odyssey is pitch-perfect, and helps to distract you from some of the film’s more aimless interludes. All in all, a worthwhile journey, but not quite the minor classic it could have been.
Fresh from its world premiere at the at the South by South West Film Festival in Texas, Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather (Axiom Films) arrives on these shores, buoyed by a healthy wave of critical acclaim. But is the hype justified? Doug (Cris Lankenau) returns home to Portland, Oregon after dropping out of college in Chicago where he was studying criminology. He takes a job in an ice factory to make ends meet, but still harbours distant dreams of becoming a detective. When his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) reappears in his life -only to subsequently disappear without a word, Doug enlists his ice factory co-worker, Carlos (Raul Castillo) to accompany him on an investigation into Rachel’s mysterious disappearance, allowing the amateur sleuth to indulge his detective fantasies.
On the surface Cold Weather is a quirky, appealing indie flick, but it lacks depth and narrative sophistication, and for all its post-modern charm, ultimately comes up short. Following in the footsteps of material like Rian Johnson’s smart, well-judged Brick from 2005 and the recent ‘slacker noir’ HBO series Bored To Death (which stars Jason Schwartzman as a pot-smoking private eye who takes on a series of bizarre cases with oddball friends Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson in tow), Cold Weather doesn’t fare particularly favourably in comparison. If the prospect of Sherlock Holmes going ‘mumble-core’ appeals to you, then Cold Weather might be worth a look-in, but most viewers will find it too whimsical for its own good.