Friday, 17 February 2017

Blind



Blindy Peekers

Blind
Norway/Netherlands 2014
Directed by Eskil Vogt
Axiom Films Blu Ray Zone B 


Eskil Vogt’s first feature film, Blind, is not one I’d actually heard of before attending last year’s London Film And Comic Con. There was a big area at the show representing Computer Exchange and while my friend and I were looking through the selection of cheap, second hand Blu Rays, he gave a triumphant shout and thrust this movie into my hand. “What’s this?” I said. My friend then replied words to the effect that he’d not actually seen it but it was critically acclaimed and that I should buy it because it has a blind woman walking around naked in it. I asked him if he was sure of the fact of there being a lot of gratuitous nakedity in the movie and he looked me dead in the eye and told me he was pretty sure. Since I realised I couldn’t turn a film down when it had obviously received such critical acclaim, I decided I would pay the princely asking price of £4 and see for myself the quality of the artistic intentions of the director.

Well, as it happens, while there is some brief nudity in this movie, there isn’t a whole lot. As it happens, though, this movie is a huge artistic triumph and was instantly compelling... so I’m not too fussed about the lack of sheer, blind sexiness in the movie, truth be told.

Blind starts off strong with a voice over narrative, which stays with us through the whole movie, presumably of the lead actress Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Ingrid, who used to be able to see but, because of a degenerative illness, is now blind... I think. Actually, that may be the truth or there may be another origin to this character’s blindness but... the movie’s narrative style is such that it both reveals and conceals in equal measure, as I’ll get to in a minute.

We start off hearing her voice over black, as she sees the world. Then we are introduced to some beautifully textured, outstanding camerawork as she describes a park forest, a stray cucumber, a dog and then we realise we are seeing the way she is visualising the world. We then have the opening titles and it’s accompanied by a quite minimal, piano led, musical score by Henk Hofstede which reminded me, somewhat, of the music of Wim Mertens... specifically some of his piano music used in Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect. I say minimal not just because of the musical similarities to Mertens in this piece but because there is hardly any music throughout the movie and, in the odd scenes where it is brought in for dramatic impact, it’s usually a variant of this piece.

We are then introduced to a second character called Einar, played by Marius Kolbenstvedt, who is obsessed with pornography. However, this guy's back story, in which we are shown lots of pornography of a specific nature which I would have thought would not have been allowed on a British Blu Ray by our somewhat cranky BBFC (being polite about them), is also narrated by Ingrid. She’s somehow describing his life like she described her own and shows his character watching her through her window from his flat opposite and mimicking her movements as he becomes obsessed by her... or is it her?

It took me a while to realise that there was a second blind character called Elin, played by Vera Vitali, because they are not always shown in close up and the hair colour and facial structure are near to each other... and for good reason, without me going into spoilers. Was I watching a flashback or was it something else?

I first noticed something was going slightly awry when we’re introduced to the main character’s young son and then, a shot or two later, it’s her young daughter. Then, as the film progresses, the director starts interpenetrating storylines which you thought were current or coexisting realities, by stealth. Now there’s a reason for this but I won’t reveal certain things about the actions of one of the characters here... but this is, on the whole, a valid and, certainly interesting, way of exploring the characters and situations in this film. The brilliant part, which really threw me until I stopped letting the two shorthand styles distract me, is that it’s happening at the same time that he’s also using visual representations of the difference between what the lead blind character is seeing in her head and the reality of her situation. So something might happen and then the director will just hit reset because it happened in a character’s head.

For example, in an early scene she wonders if the ceilings in her apartment are actually as big as her husband, Morten (played by Henrik Rafaelsen), has told her they are. Later on, we see a shot of her stretching her hands to the ceiling and, in the close up of her arm and hand, we see her fingers reaching just below the ceiling. When we cut to the long shot, however, we can see that her hand is actually many feet away from the ceiling and it’s this kind of brilliant stuff that the director does that keeps the film interesting... that is, asides from the absolutely amazing acting on show from all the people who populate the main cast of this movie. Especially Peterson and Vitali who make amazing blind people.

And, like I said, the worlds within the sometimes puzzling but ultimately justified narrative structure also add another layer to the film. There’s a scene, for instance, where Einar and Morten are having coffee in a cafe. As we see a shot of Einar, we realise a bus is moving in the background of the window. We then cut to a shot of the other man and the whole background in the window is moving. We cut back and see more buses and then cut tot he other guy again and the background outside is static. As Morten goes to put his coffee down on the table he suddenly realises the table is no longer there because part of their conversation is taking place in a moving train carriage and part of it isn’t and it’s all mixed up in their heads... enough so that it sometimes even takes the characters by surprise, it would seem.

And this kind of stuff is, for the most part, so subtly done that it all blends into a single, challenging but definitely decipherable narrative which holds your interest. It even gets to the point, and I’m trying not to give too much away here, where even one of the character’s lines is discarded halfway through her sentence and then replaced with another. As the light begins to dawn on you about halfway through the movie what you are watching, so the interpenetrations and bleed-throughs between different narrative spaces become more frequent. And even with ‘guest music’ appearance of Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing, which I last heard in Hal Hartley’s movie Simple Men, it wasn’t enough of a distraction that I was so engrossed by the narrative habitat created by the writer/director that I barely had time to register it and tap my feet.

As you can probably guess, I had an absolute blast with Blind and it turned out to be one of my friend’s best purchase recommendations. In fact, I am now going to have to lend it to him so he can see what he recommended. As far as I’m concerned, if you are into the art of cinema then you probably can’t help but love this movie so, if you haven’t seen it already, you should maybe rush out and grab a copy soonest. Blind is certainly a film with, ironically, a lot more vision than a lot of movies churned out these days.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Stranger Things



Needful Kings

Stranger Things
2016 USA


A friend of mine gave me access to Stranger Things saying “This is a show I think you might like.” Since it’s one of those streaming thingies on a web site (or something like a web site but a bit beyond my understanding), he probably knew I would never bother to try and see this show any other way than him letting me to watch it. I really don’t like the digital world and streaming deprives me of the neccessary ownership of holding a shiny disc in my hand, not to mention allowing me to ignore the studio if they decide to play puppet-master and pull it from their virtual releases schedule. Having now seen it, I’m not sure I’m the particular audience that Stranger Things is catering for... although I did warm to it by the final couple of episodes.

Set in the, presumably fictional, town of Hawkin (named after Professor Hawking, I would guess), this is the story of four teenage friends who are into cool stuff (like Dungeons & Dragons, for example) and it mostly takes place in 1983. However, as we see at the start, some kind of ‘monstrous thing’ is unleashed and, when one of the boys, Will Byers, goes missing, his three friends try to find out what’s happened to him in the face of establishment adversity, even when the boy’s body is found (which will make sense once you start to watch it). Along with their new super powered, escaped Government Research Group experiment friend 011, aka eleven or Elle for short, the friends become embroiled in a fantastic adventure involving an alternate layer of reality, a monster and a sinister, threatening Government conspiracy. And, of course, multiple sets of investigations... where different, older sets of characters get involved with alternate elements of the mystery so everyone can accidentally end up meeting near the end and then, by pooling their resources and discoveries, beat the evil government agency responsible and find the missing character.

So, yeah, it’s trying to tap into exactly the same kind of source material that J. J. Abram’s Super 8 (reviewed here) was trying to get into... and so you have loads of 1980s horror and science fiction references on show here, with many nods to Stephen Spielberg thrown into the mix... along with stuff like ‘Salem’s Lot, John Carpenter, The Evil Dead... basically everything you’d want to showcase in a loving homage to the 1980s. Even some of the music is a little like something John Carpenter might have come up with for The Fog (reviewed here) in a kind of light form. Having said that, the producers have included The Bangles cover version of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade Of Winter in one episode and, thinking about it, that’s a bit of an anachronism. Admittedly it’s a disturbing cover for me because The Bangles only cover two thirds of the original song and left out my favourite verse (“... at any convenient time. Funny how my mem’ry skips while looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme... drinking my vodka and lime...”) but what really infuriated me as I was thinking about it on the bus coming home from work was that Stranger Things Season One is set in November 1983... but The Bangles didn’t bring that version of the song out until 1987, if mem’ry serves and is not skipping here. So, you know, if you’re going to do 1983... get it right!

So, okay... all this referential stuff is something I should be well into and, normally I would be... but I found it really hard to get into here. Ditto for my dad who only managed to make it a half an hour into the first episode before bailing on it in disgust at the amount of formulaic writing showcased here. I at least made it to the end of the last episode and, I’d have to say from about episode 5 onwards, things start to get a little more interesting in terms of just wanting to find out what is going to happen next. The characters do grow on you.

For the most part, though, all this stuff is dull and clichéd... something you don’t want to have with even the most post-modernly eclectic approach to popular entertainment and, with its obvious plot line, it did feel like somebody had just taken an old episode of The X-Files and expanded it into something unnecessarily longer. The opening of each episode proclaims it to be A Netflix Original Series but, honestly, it’s so far from original it’s not funny.

That’s not to say there aren’t any plus points and, like I said, I did stay to the end with it. For example...

Although the story is pedestrian in nature and not exactly full of surprises (trust me... you’ve seen it all before, sometimes dressed a little differently), it does at least stick rigidly to being an all round, coherent narrative and this is very much improved by having some really warm characters and, frankly, some great actors in it. I’d heard that Winona Ryder was in this one and she does an absolutely phenomenal job as Joyce Byers, the mother of the missing boy. Of course, it took me half an hour to realise which one she was in it because, frankly, she still looks like she’s in her mid twenties and certainly not old enough to be anyone's mother, especially not of the teenage brothers depicted here. She plays a character halfway between losing it at the disappearance/possible death of her boy and a perceived crazy but driven warrior as she becomes embroiled in the phenomena... talking to her absent son through Christmas tree lights etc. Don’t worry... it’ll make sense if you sit down and watch it.

She is more than ably supported by David Harbour as Jim Hopper, the post-tragedy washed up excuse for a town sherriff who, perhaps somewhat predictably, straightens himself up and opens his mind, becoming one of the real good guys when he realises there really is a government conspiracy and that Joyce’s youngest boy may still be alive. And we have Mathew Modine as the head of the Government group who knows much more about what’s going on, and what’s gotten loose, than anyone else in town. Actually pretty much everyone is really good in this and I could just list the whole cast here and say, these people are all doing a swell job... but you’ll see that if you watch the show.

Special shout out to the four kids who are going after the mostly absent Will, though, because they’re awesome... Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, the outstanding Gaten Matarazzo and the quite unbelievably phenomenal acting tour de force that is the eleven year old (at time of filming) Millie Bobby Brown... who plays Eleven with an amazing level of intelligence and understanding that a lot of actors don’t sometimes get when they are over twice her age.

Now, the story is clichéd, it’s true, but it is kinda addictive... mostly in terms of staying around to see if you are right about what’s going to happen next. However, I did think that the 1980s theme was kinda downplayed quite a lot in places and... I don’t know why I didn’t respond to it much since, well, I remember the 1980s pretty well in terms of the pop culture. It’s funny, I really like movies and books that are retro set in the 1960s and I have to wonder if the majority of the people on places like Twitter and the like who are raving about Stranger Things are so positive about it because many of them are quite young and it gives them a sense of borrowed nostalgia for a time they never, actually, properly lived through themselves, maybe? I don’t know whether that’s true or not but Stranger Things has proven very popular with young audiences, it seems to me, and a second series has already been commissioned. 

Which is lucky because, as is the nature of such shows written by people who know that a follow up could always be on the cards, there are still quite a few questions raised about, for example, the strange world of ‘the underneath’ which features so prominently in this as a mystery element. Is it really a parallel realm or is it, in fact, a near future reality of this town in this fictional version of 1983? Is one of the most interesting characters in the show really gone at the end of the last episode or will that person return for the second season? Is one of my favourite characters really dead at the end of episode three or can something be done about that? And what is really going on with that other character everyone has been making such a fuss about? There’s definitely something up with him.

So, yeah, the writers have written it as open ended as possible so they can riff on other genre conventions in the next series along... so there’s that. And that’s going to happen sometime over the next year, I would guess. Meanwhile, I keep asking myself if I’d recommend Stranger Things to any of my friends and, I think, judging from my own reaction and that of my dad, that it will probably play better to a much younger audience than people who actually lived through those times. It does have its moments of intrigue and mystery and, in terms of direction, shot framing and some nice camera movement which echoes some of the props from one of the episode's directors. It’s certainly a competently put together piece, if you can ignore the clichéd nature of this particular postmodernistic beast. So if you’re 30 or under, I suggest you may want to give this one a go and... if you’re over that age, maybe you’ll try to be a little more understanding and forgiving if some of the stuff in this seems painfully obvious and protracted. At that age you’re not necessarily the target audience, methinks.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Lego Batman Movie



Brick Grayson

The Lego Batman Movie
Denmark/USA 2017
Directed by Chris McKay
Warner Brothers
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Some spoilers, of sorts.

I was pretty surprised when, a couple of years back, Warner Brothers allowed their Batman character (plus a load of other licensed characters from various franchises) to be diluted, just a little, by having a version of him in The Lego Movie (reviewed here) while the franchise and their film rights were still very much active in the current cinematic landscape. It was a great idea and I welcomed it heartily but I think it was quite brave of them to lampoon their own characters like that and they’ve done it again now with this spin off film, The Lego Batman Movie.

What this means is that they’re allowing a movie with a major character in ‘comedy mode’ out in the very same year that at least one movie also featuring Batman (as played by Ben Affleck) is coming out at our cinemas in the Justice League movie. It remains to be seen whether his character will also make an appearance in a cameo at the end of the new Wonder Woman movie too, to remind the audience what they are building up to but... I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, I’m pretty glad that this movie here is in existence because frankly, and I’m sure most people would probably agree on this, it’s way more of an interesting and engaging film than the current crop of dark DC movies that are being inflicted on audiences and this one really captures certain, albeit exaggerated, truths about the characters in a direct and effective way which the other cinematic representations we’ve had lately just aren’t able to compete with on a similar level.

So, this weekend, I armed myself with a kid, being as I went to the cinema with my friend, his lovely wife and their cute child... and took in the new Lego movie myself and, although there was exactly the ‘first showing overload’ problem I expected to have with it on this one (yeah, I’ll get to it soon enough), I overall had a good time with this movie and it even got me to smile at some moments, a facial expression which is fairly out of character for me, it has to be said.

The first thing prospective audience members may want to know about this one is that you absolutely do not need to see The Lego Movie to watch this. In fact, I couldn’t find any reference to the events and characters of that film anywhere in this one. They might be in there but I certainly didn’t spot them on first viewing so, yeah, this can very much be seen as a stand alone film. Well, other than the fact that Batman is in it, of course... totally not referring to his previous brick-based adventures in any way shape or form. There are, however, quite a lot of references to the previous incarnations of The Batman, both on screen and off, as there are about the DC universe in general... and they do come thick and fast. It was nice, for example, seeing a clip from the 1960s Adam West Batman on the big screen again (there are at least six homages to the Batman TV show and also the film spin off that I could count) and it was also nice to see a brief reference to the 1940s theatrical serials at one point.

And it doesn’t stop there either... the DC universe isn’t the only thing that gets furious referencing here as this follows the same modus operandi as The Lego Movie in that characters from a whole host of other Lego licensed franchises are also seen on screen. I was disappointed that a lot of the DC Universe characters were sidelined in this movie but it was nice to see The Superfriends mixing it up with their Justice League buddies in a party scene. It’s in this sequence that Batman and his newly acquired sidekick Dick Grayson, aka Robin (or Reggae Man... nah, you watch the film to find out) steal The Phantom Zone projector from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude so they can banish The Joker there. Of course, that’s exactly what The Joker wants and it’s here that he teams up and unleashes various Lego versions of their licensed characters (and some unlicensed, as far as I know) and teams up with them to destroy Gotham City. So yeah, we have Voldemort from Harry Potter, the Eye of Sauron from Lord Of The Rings, the Gremlins from... um... Gremlins, King Kong, the DALEKS from Doctor Who and the Wicked Witch of the West with her flying monkeys from The Wizard Of Oz, all involved in an all out attack on the brick city where Batman lives and... it’s pretty much as fun as you would expect.

There are a couple of problems. The main one being that there is so much going on in the movie, both in terms of cramming in a heck of a lot of laughs and action and also in terms of the dialogue/visual referencing that it does get a little difficult to process it at points. Some of the action sequences... especially when Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Alfred (as voiced by Ralph Fiennes) team up with all the supervillains The Joker left behind in Arkham Asylum and go head to head against the aforementioned army of evil... are a little hard to follow at certain points, to be sure. Of course, it could be argued that the choppiness, albeit often inventive action sequences, coupled with the sheer randomness of the assorted roll call of non-DC universe character mash ups are an homage to the free imagination of a child and, well, who am I to argue with that.

Another thing that irritated me a little was Batman’s description of the un-named DALEKS as ‘British Robots’. Okay, British is fine (even though they were created on the planet Skaro) but robots they are not. If anything, they are living creatures driving personal tanks, to some extent. So wasn’t that impressed with the almost derogatory way in which they are referred, especially when they are in the movie a fair bit.

And I also found it strange and somewhat disappointing that in a movie which has Ralph Fiennes doing one of the voices, he wasn’t also asked to voice his recurring Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort, since he plays a big part here, instead choosing to have Voldemort voiced by Eddie Izzard instead. Don’t know what they were thinking there, to be honest.

However, these are all pretty minor things and it’s a quite fun movie most of the time. Like a lot of these kinds of films these days it also pitches its humour on two parallel levels. You’ve got all the slapstick and stuff for the kids but there’s also an adult level hidden but quite easily decryptable in the movie too... so if you’re an intelligent member of the 'grown ups' race (and not just a man-child like me) then you have something which you can hook into too.

And that’s about it for The Lego Batman Movie. Oh, apart from a quick shout out to Lorne Balfe who provides an excellent, Batman-esque score for the proceedings (the CD is in the mail) and a quick note to say that Billy Dee Williams finally gets to reprise his role of Harvey Dent (aka Two Face) from the 1989 Batman movie, albeit briefly. Other than that though, The Batman Lego Movie is not full of interesting shot set ups or mind-blowing visuals but it does have a huge sense of fun and, like the previous movie, a whole brickload of heart. This is almost certainly going to be more interesting than any other Batman related movie released this year (I’m just guessing here but we’ll see if I’m right) and it’s definitely worth a look... especially if you know your comic book history and like spotting all the references. There’s a lot here to hold your interest.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

3 Women (aka Three Women)



Three For All

3 Women (aka Three Women)
USA 1977 Directed by Robert Altman
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B


Warning: Very slight spoilers, I suppose.

It’s funny... the first Robert Altman film I saw, years ago in my late teens, was M*A*S*H and it blew me away. Loved the style of it and found the way that the main parts of the book seemed to take a backseat while the lesser scenes were pushed into the foreground in Altman’s adaptation, made it a pretty good companion piece to the source (which is also excellent, by the way).

Ever since then, however, I’ve found Altman fairly hit and miss and, to be honest... mostly miss, although I seem to remember I quite liked McCabe and Mrs. Miller and I still haven’t seen The Long Goodbye yet (it’s in the ‘to watch’ pile). 3 Women, however, is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to see because a photographic still, usually the same one of a publicity shot not actually seen in the movie, was always turning up in various books on fantasy or horror cinema when I was reading through those in my teens. Having now seen the film I can’t really understand why it would have been included in them but... there you go, some people wouldn’t know a fantasy or horror movie if it leapt up from behind a rock and bit them in the face. As proved to me on an almost weekly basis on Twitter, it seems to me.

Altman has cited that he made 3 Women based on a series of dreams he had been having and he has also gone on record saying it was inspired by some of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Looking at this, I’m guessing that Cries and Whispers and The Silence were probably the most influential on this one here... although they’re less of a template and more of a mood which Altman then goes on to explore in a more 'crowded palette’, as it were.

The film concerns three women (no... really) who find themselves thrust into each others lives. The first of the three is Pinky Rose, played by Altman regular Sissy Spacek. She is a young, impetuous girl who leaves home in Texas to come to California and work in a kind of water therapy clinic for the elderly. It’s here she meets Millie Lammoreaux, played by another Altman regular, Shelley Duvall. Millie acts as if she’s a very popular and busy person but it’s soon clear that nobody really wants anything to do with her and they tend to ridicule her behind her back (or sometimes right up to her face). Pinky, however, is very taken with Millie... to the point of obsession... so when Millie needs a room mate, she goes to live with her.

When Millie takes Pinky to a bar, she meets the third woman of the story, Willie Hart (played by Janice Rule), an artist who hardly ever says a word and who is always working on one of many, kinda surreal and hypnotic paintings which are dotted at various places over the local county. Hart is rarely in the story much (and I do almost wonder why it was called 3 Women because of this fact) but her presence is felt by the constant reminder of her paintings and because of one of a number of tragedies that happen over the course of the movie. And, inevitably, because she only wanders into the odd scene here and there, not saying anything (you only hear her talk in the last ten minutes of the film), she is made all the more interesting and mysterious a character for it.

Certainly an interesting character for Pinky, who loves her spooky paintings and is almost as obsessed by her as she is with Millie. The film is a character study as we watch Pinky and Millie interact over a period of time and see how Pinky manages to get on Millie’s nerves so much that, when Millie commits an indiscretion with somebody on the peripheral of their lives, she then later goes on to regret what she angrily says to Pinky next in no uncertain terms.

At this point in the film something happens (which I won’t spoil here) and Pinky’s personality changes dramatically to something which seems to be more like what Millie imagines she, herself, is like... as opposed to the reality of the situation. There’s a scary, almost alien, moment where Spacek’s Pinky just laughs and... well it’s really quite unsettling in the way this exclamation is uttered. Pinky and Millie soon find themselves at each other’s throats until... a strangely surreal dream sequence happens and, before you can totally fathom how this has affected Pinky, we are thrust into another tragic event and things get vaguely bloody.

It’s then that we get an end coda for the movie which is totally open to interpretation due to its ambiguous nature. At least that’s the way it seems to me. My interpretation is that the three women have eaten/absorbed each other’s personalities and shifted the hierarchy, somewhat, living together in some kind of ‘survival mode pack’ with a death which has happened off screen being something they may or... you never know... may not, have been responsible for. It’s quite bleak and there’s not much closure in it, with certain mysteries implied in the movie left unanswered. It’s the kind of ending I really don’t mind, to be honest, as it gives the movie some time to live on in your mind for a while after you’ve first seen it.

The Bergmannesque element Altman cites is fairly evident in the design of the shots throughout as he uses reflective surfaces such as glass to double and treble the image planes in the movie so you can get some solidly delineated sections of the screen collaborating for the viewer in ways they aren’t actually doing in real life... except the viewer can see the juxtaposition of the characters in ways which lend an interesting dynamic to the movie. Although, again, I was puzzled as to why the director fairly often dwelled on splits of two with a title like 3 Women... especially since he also uses a set of identical twins to further push the illusion of duality throughout the movie. Although, now I think of it, it could also be a motif used to push the idea of a split personality which, by the end of the film, is something that pretty much all three of the title characters seem to be exhibiting in terms of splitting off into new/alternate versions of themselves/each other.

It’s an interesting movie and I’m glad I saw it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone but the most sophisticated or, possibly, most jaded of cinephiles but, fans of the director’s work who appreciate the naturalistic kinds of performances he lets his actors run with shouldn’t have too much of a problem with this movie. Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but certainly something which I think was worth my while so... yeah... one to consider, maybe.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Einstein On The Beach



‘Really’ Of Telly-tivety

Einstein On The Beach
France/UK 2016
Opus Arte Blu Ray All Regions


Composer Philip Glass has been playing a musical backdrop to my life for almost 30 years now. His music, and also this opera in particular, was a big influence on me when I was studying for my degree. Up until then I had been listening primarily to musical scores written for movies but was also shifting into more experimental, contemporary classical stuff. I had already discovered a form of minimalism, the musical form accredited to brilliant composers like Glass and Steve Reich, to a certain extent in the ‘Ladbroke Grove sound’ perpetuated by Michael Nyman, initially through his scores for the Peter Greenaway movies and then onto all his other stuff. When I finished my General Art and Design Diploma I then studied for my degree in Graphic Design at the London College of Printing and it was here, fairly early on, that a fellow student, @thatkeithmartin introduced me to Philip Glass by way of his compositions for the documentary Northstar and the stage show 1000 Airplanes On The Roof. I was absolutely hooked from the opening notes of each and then I went into one of the HMVs in Oxford Street (I don’t believe it’s there anymore) and bought the original CBS CD set of Einstein On The Beach and, predictably, it blew me away.

And that’s the kind of stuff I was listening as a counterpoint to my degree course. A solid wall of Philip Glass in the evenings as I worked on various degree projects and his music just kind of seeped into me and, I’m sure, seeped out again in various ways in my own work on a visual level. And, on and off, I’ve never really stopped listening to him since. I’ve seen him live in concert too many times to count over the years. Watched him do live performances of Koyanisqaatsi and Powaqaatsi a number of times too and seen various operas such as Galileo Galilei and, my favourite of his works, Satyagraha. However, I’ve never had the opportunity to see his opera Einstein On The Beach and apparently, that’s because I missed it when it was in tour in 2013. Which is something I’ve only just found out and which I’m annoyed about but I have, at least, seen this new Blu Ray version of it taken from one of those 2013 productions and... I’m very much better off for having done so.

So I finally got to see what this thing was supposed to look like behind this fantastic curtain of music and... it’s the same but different.

For instance, the opening ‘Knee Play’ music which is one of my favourite all-time Philip Glass pieces and which, in the recording I have,  lasts only four minutes, is performed here in an entirety that I never knew it had... with a long, slow build up to those last few minutes which takes almost a half an hour. I would absolutely love to get a CD of this version but, heck, at least I have it on here (and you can apparently watch this section on you tube too here) and it’s absolutely incredible.

In fact, all in all I’d have to say that this production and the way this has been captured here for the home viewing market, with the director using close ups of various elements of what is often a packed out stage, is just overall incredible in general, barring a minor grumble. That grumble being the introduction, in a few sequences, of some fairly standard dancing moves... thankfully these sections don’t go on too long though and the majority of this thing is absolute bliss. And even if there are some sequences you don’t particularly like, the music is always there in the foreground so, frankly, the whole four and a half hours as featured on this quite nicely put together, two disc blu ray set, is a huge hit with me.

I’d have to say that my favourite part of the opera is the first hour and a half and the opening knee play, where the two ‘main ladies’ start saying words or phrases from the ‘get some wind for the sailboat’ lyrics and hurling out seemingly random numbers (yeah, I bet they’re not). It’s truly startling and the main choreography from original choreographer Lucinda Childs (who put it together in collaboration with Glass back in the early 1970s) is amazing as people move slowly... very slowly... around the stage space and throw out frozen expressions of joy and wonder which, frankly, cracked me up laughing in several places and which really carried me along on a wave of joy right from the word go. As this opening plays out, the chorus gradually, over the space of a quarter of an hour or more, assemble themselves in slow motion until they catch up to the ‘Knee Play' section and start the familiar counterpoint singing... One Two Three Four, One Two Three Four Five Six, One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight as a repeat phrase which then, possibly without some people even noticing, metamorphosises into One Two Three Four, One Two Three Four Five Six, Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight but still retaining the beat for the missing number. It’s just sublime.

And that’s one of main things about the music of Philip Glass that I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with and not realise over the years. It tends to take you by stealth sometimes but there’s always a lot more going on than just a repeat motif... it shifts and strays and progresses itself until it reaches a logical conclusion or change and it does it slowly. Which is another thing which I have a theory on when it comes to people who don’t really ‘get’ the music of Philip Glass. When certain people hear it they tend to hear a jumble of notes repeated very fast, over and over again. Nope, that’s not what it is... as far as I’m concerned...

Think of micropolyphany in music.

It was invented by György Ligeti and some of his music, which was accidentally appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for 2001 - A Space Odyssey without paying the composer (at first), such as Lux Aeterna, uses this invention... which is lots of short, indistinguishable notes played very fast to make up one, long even tone. Think of that concept for a moment and then think about the music of Philip Glass. It sounds fast if you listen on the surface but think about how those notes and phrases are slowly shifting and mutating and you’ll maybe come to the conclusion, as did I back in my college days, that Philip Glass doesn’t really write fast music and that his works do, in fact, incorporate ponderous melody lines. What he does, it is my belief, is write very slow music which is, itself, made up of lots of very fast repeat notes. So try listening to what the notes are saying in clusters rather than as individual notes and... you may start to get hooked on the music the same way I did all those decades ago.

And it’s great hearing this stuff and seeing the accompanying visuals for the first time. Especially with the director hand picking which parts of a composition you see on the stage at any one time so you don’t miss what he considers to be important. It’s also an absolute mind blower to try and figure out how all the performers know where to come in an go out. Glass’s music can’t be all that easy to get right and I wonder how much concentrated counting is going on in the heads of the actors, actresses and singers. My best guess, from having seen some of these singers coming in on the same cue, time after time, is that there is a complex series of clues at work here and each individual is both looking out, and listening out, for them. For instance, when person x gets to that line in the floor over there, the next person can start to move and go into their singing  which will, in turn, trigger somebody else to start their next part of the performance. That’s my best guess scenario anyway.

It must be a fairly complex set of signifiers to get the stuff right, I’m sure and not only extremely easy to screw up but fairly physically demanding... even for dancers (who are notoriously strong). There’s one sequence, for example, lasting around a half and hour or maybe longer, where a girl is strutting backwards and forwards across the stage in repeat motions while her arm is outstretched and pointing upwards at a fixed angle. I was feeling her pain... if you’ve ever tried to hold your arm steady for even a few minutes, let alone keep a beat with the music and keep within your area of a stage while moving fairly quickly... well, you can probably get some idea of what these people are accomplishing here for their art.

The whole opera is very well performed, in fact, and extremely well put together. I’ve both more and less of an idea of what I am listening to every time I reach for that album these days and I think I’m better off for it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but it is truly brilliant stuff and if you’re a fan of Philip Glass, or even contemporary or historical minimalism in the first place, then you probably owe it to yourself to give this one a look. Especially since it’s clear some revisions or changes have been made to the original text. I’m feeling really grateful to Opus Arte for being able to finally see Einstein On The Beach in a presentation of some sort and I hope they keep up the good work with their Glass back catalogue and release some more of his projects, past and present, in the future. Really looking forward to seeing more of this kind of stuff out there.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Resident Evil - The Final Chapter



The Clone Ranger

Resident Evil - The Final Chapter 

aka Resident Evil 6
2016  France/Germany/Canada/Australia
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson 
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Big, major spoilers on this one.
Sorry, but they bring it on themselves.


I left off waiting to write a review of Resident Evil - The Final Chapter for a day after seeing it because, as a fan of the first five films (well, okay, the second was a bit ropey in the second half but the others were pretty good), I wanted to see if my disappointment would be tempered and I could find anything good to say about it. However, that didn’t really work because the crushing blows delivered to the franchise due to the poor story content are still haunting me the next day and I am now just very, very angry with the whole thing.

I’ve criticised film series’ before when they don’t stick to their guns and, instead, destroy their own fictional credibility due to sloppy ‘wet paint thinking’ and I think the writers and producers of these kinds of things should be more mindful of the history of their product and not treat their paying audience like they’re a bunch of half wits. Perhaps the dubious honour of the most devastatingly awful lack of story continuity in a modern film franchises belongs to the X-Men films... which are now so notoriously screwed by the absolutely insane lack of internal logic that the film-makers don’t even seem to be trying to explain away the whacking great holes in their films anymore. Indeed, with the X-Men, they seem to be just making it all a heck of a lot worse with each subsequent installment.

Perhaps a similar film series with as little respect for their audience would be the four pseudo-sequels that constitute the 1940s Universal Mummy movies... which are notoriously awful at both the time in which each movie is set and, indeed, the shifting locations which make certain resurrections of the title monster absolutely impossible. However, at least the writers in the 1940s had a certain set of expectations from their audience in that the films were only ever seen when they were released in the cinema and so it was a lot more difficult for audiences to remember the specific details of the previous movie in an age before television, which would be showing these things many years later, not to mention the birth of the VCR and the modern, digital age of home video viewing.

However, the people who write terrible continuity in modern times should be ashamed of themselves for trying to pull the wool over their audience’s eyes because we are, after all, living in an age of DVD, Blu Ray and digital downloads. People don’t forget very much for very long... especially when you have people passionate enough about watching a franchise that you are now up to, in the case of the Resident Evil films, the sixth in the series. That’s just plain wrong since your built in audience are going to be the first ones to spot these glaring inaccuracies.

Alas, that’s exactly the kind of ‘have your cake and eat it’ philosophy at work in Paul W. S. Andersons latest incarnation of the Resident Evil franchise and it’s such a shame that he’s decided to treat his audience like absolute idiots on this one... because the series had been pretty good up until now.

Okay, so the opening of this one starts off with the traditional ‘recap’ of the series but, in this case, it’s almost all new footage which completely changes the back story of certain elements of the previous five films so we can have a new set of reveals at the end of this one. This is wrong for so many reasons... the primary one being that, if you’ve worked so hard for five films to establish a continuity, why insult your audience’s intelligence by changing it for an end pay off that, frankly, is unbelievably obvious before this pseudo-recap is even over. How stupid is that?

Everything we know about the ‘Red Queen’ from the previous films is rendered useless within the first few minutes of this one and it’s a special blow to the second movie in the franchise, Resident Evil - Apocalypse, which had some of the usual suspects trying to rescue/extract the real life template for the Red Queen from Racoon City as their main goal. Here, we are given a completely new girl in the role of the Red Queen and, blow me down if it doesn’t look like a young Mila Jovovich, who stars as the series’ main protagonist Alice in all six movies. So one of the so-called end reveals that Alice was the real life template for the Red Queen, quite apart from rendering the second movie complete nonsense, is obvious right from the opening (and made even more obvious when you realise that husband and wife team, director Anderson and actress Jovovich, have cast their own daughter in the role of the Red Queen here).

And with all this, frankly unnecessary, change to a key element of the series, one wonders why the writer doesn’t think we’ll notice the hasty footprints left in the wet paint around the corner he really hadn’t actually written himself into... to be honest. This isn’t the film's only weakness, for sure, but it is a pretty major one. Especially when it uses characters, actors and other elements of the series as reference points in a storyline which has been altered, seemingly, to fit the current mood of the producers.

Bearing in mind, then, that the majority of the Resident Evil movies tend to leave themselves on a cliff hanger ending to be resolved in the next film, it’s somewhat annoying that the film decides to only refer to the resolution of the previous cliff hanger as an event off screen, rather than show it in what, I suspect, would have been a budget breaker of an opening sequence, truth be told.

In the last movie, Alice had been re-injected with the T-virus which gave her super powers and rescued by her enemies, as part of their specific mission to do so, in order to help them with the final showdown between the spawn of the T-virus and the last survivors of humanity. Here, we are immediately, after the dreadfully compromised ‘recap’, plunged into a story which takes place three weeks after Alice and her ‘friends’ have been wiped out by the battle they lost. What’s more, there’s a throwaway line that basically tells us that she wasn’t really re-injected with the T-virus after all... it was just another lie. At which point you have to then ask yourselves... why? Why would the fact that the villains of the piece go to all that trouble to rescue her and re-infect her with the virus so she can help them... be a lie? Why bother going through what they did in the last film. Okay, so that’s at least two films in the franchise now made effectively redundant and you have to ask, at this point early on in the proceedings, what the heck Paul W. S. Anderson thinks he is trying to do here.

And the film just carries on like this with lots of things that make no sense and also... and here’s the kicker... is about as dull as a bag of bones and barely fun at all. One of the things the previous Resident Evil films had in abundance was their light hearted sense of fun. Here, everything just seems to be dialled back and a bit of a drudge. The action sequences, including the return of the hounds who were conspicuously absent from one of the films and who seem like just an add on here, are all quite plodding, for the most part. I think a lot of that has to do with the editing, to be honest, which seems to be somewhat rapid fire in the worst places and, for me at least, make the action sequences somewhat hard to follow a lot of the time.

There are two good things about the movie that I could find.

The first is a very small action sequence where Alice springs a trap and fights her way out of it while swinging upside down. Honestly, it’s a good little scene and it’s such a pity that the pay off at the end of it, where she is electrocuted to unconsciousness by the security settings on the bike she tries to steal, is so obvious. It also makes the punchline moment to the next scene where she tries to steal a bike even more obvious but... you know what... if you already have a tricked out bike used to lure someone into a trap, why the hell would you not just let them try to steal the bike in the first place? Talk about going the long way around.

The other good thing about the movie is Paul Haslinger’s score. The ex-Tangerine Dream member is a newcomer to the franchise but, while it’s possibly not the best score the series has had, it more than holds its own with them and feels like it belongs in the same ‘shared world’, at the very least. Kind of a shame the film itself doesn’t live up to it but, what can you do?

And that’s the only two good things I have to say about the movie, to be honest. Other than there’s some nice, quite bleak set dressing in some sequences although, I would have to point out that the really interesting sets would maybe seem more at home in a Silent Hill movie than they perhaps do in a Resident Evil film. Apart from this, everything seems to be just a pointless, dull exercise in keeping a franchise going in the dullest way possible, with lots of “why didn’t they just...?” moments and never, really, an interesting minute. Such a shame because the films have usually had a surprise or two up their sleeve and, as I said before, at the very least been heaps of fun. This one, alas, isn’t and I don’t think I would even recommend it to long terms fans of the previous films, let alone those going in with no experience of the others.

I understand that this movie had some tragedies on set. One stuntwoman had to have an arm amputated after a stunt went wrong and another guy was crushed to death. These things happen sometimes in the pursuit of art and they are always very sad. Must have been very upsetting for the cast and crew to absorb, I’m sure. I hope their colleagues and friends on the movie will always remember them and honour the work they did here.

That being said, although the title of this movie obviously implies it was always intended to be the last, it’s such a shame that Resident Evil - The Final Chapter is such a franchise killer anyway. Especially since the series has now officially become the most successful, in terms of accumulated box office, series of films in history to be based on a computer game. It doesn’t stop this movie being such a bad one, however, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow. One pill makes you larger but this pill makes it small.

My reviews of the previous Resident Evil films can be found here, here and here.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Slugs



From Mollusc To Dawn

Slugs
Spain/USA 1988
Directed by Juan Piquer Simón
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Ha! This movie, I’ll warn you up front, is quite delightfully terrible... in all the right places.

I’ve wanted this one since hearing of its existence a few months ago when Arrow Films said they were putting a super duper restored print onto Blu Ray. Now, to be fair, it wouldn’t really take much more incentive than the title and the promise of a movie about killer slugs to ensure I watched this anyway but... as soon as I'd heard the title I did a little quick research and realised that this is kind of like watching an old friend, in some ways...

Back in the early 1980s I, like many other kids the same age as me in their early teens, started reading horror novels. There were plenty of them about and the first author I tried was Stephen King, who I liked a great deal (although his first novel, Carrie, never did anything for me for some reason... I much preferred the movie version of that one). Of course, after you’ve tried King, things get to be a slippery slope and you go onto James Herbert where you suddenly find, if you’re at that age of around 12-14 years when this kind of thing starts to be appealing, that the mixture of full-on graphic sex and bloody carnage is a heady cocktail too powerful to resist. Soon you start trying all the trashiest horror novels you can find that have that lethal combination of flesh sliding against flesh followed by flesh mutilated by some unspeakable horror and, like I said, the bookshops of Great Britain were full of this kind of stuff and all the kids at school would be reading things by these kinds of authors.

I got through a load of books by these kinds of trashy (and often fun) horror writers... I might mention authors like John Halkin or Guy N. Smith and the kinds of books they were churning out about killer jellyfish or giant crabs etc. One such author, producing some of the more well written pulps of the late 1970s/early 1980s horror boom, was Shaun Hutson. I remember reading one of his I liked at the time called Erebus and he was also the writer of a novel called Slugs (which later spawned a sequel, Breeding Ground). I hadn’t realised, until Arrow made their announcement about releasing this title, that there had been a movie adaptation of the first novel as a co-production between Spain and the US... which updated the action from the very ‘English England’ of the novel to America.

My first reaction was... why? My second reaction was... wow, I’ve got to see this one.

And so here I am with a first watch of Slugs and, as I said before... it’s really terrible.

Now, had I seen this movie back at the time of its release (and I suspect that over here it would have been a straight to video, pan and scan job), I would have condemned it for being utter trash and would have consigned it to video hell. However, looking back at it now with the benefit of a slightly rose tinted nostalgia for the kind of movies being made and released by companies like, in this case, New World pictures, it becomes a charming, hilarious and somewhat affectionate viewing experience, for the most part.

The acting is awful and, it has to be said, the screenplay isn’t doing the performers any favours either. Neither is the score in some sequences, credited to someone called Tim Souster but credited only as Music Department for this particular film in his IMDB listing. Maybe that’s because, although there is some nicely put together, Herrmannesque scoring for the majority of the scenes, there are some ‘heroic themes’ which are completely inappropriate to the on screen action and they just popped me out of the film in some truly ‘WTF?’ moments. Which, once you have got over the shock, also contributes to the maniacal enjoyment to a certain extent, it has to be said.

However, there are some quite good practical special effects in this one, to be sure. I thought the infamous ‘slugs bursting out from a guy’s eye sockets’ effect was looking pretty good and a scene where a slug takes a small bite out of the main male protagonist’s finger looked pretty amazing. I don’t know if this was done with stop motion effects or what. I don’t think CGI would have been a viable option back then.

So what did I learn from this movie?

Well, for one thing I learned that if you eat some bits of a slug that’s accidentally gotten into your lettuce leaves, they are going to come to life inside you and eventually burst our of your head in a fairly ostentatious fashion.

Another thing I learned was something which I remember being bizarrely pushed a lot in pulpy novels and horror movies of the 1980s... if you are going to have sex with someone and it’s your wife or long term partner then that’s okay. If, however, you are either having an affair or, in the case of this movie, are a teenage couple seeing each other illicitly behind your parents backs and then having sex... you’d better watch out. In this kind of movie, nature will always find some way to punish you by having some kind of monster or mutation dispose of you in some kind of gory but completely ludicrous manner, once you have your clothes off. And, seriously, this movie is about a bunch of slow moving slugs, after all. If you fall down amongst them... don’t stay down while they eat your eyeballs out and crawl over your bosom or unleashed genitalia like they do here, surely? How is this even possible to be a credible kind of death? It’s like these people just want to be slug fodder. Can someone go and get the condiments already?

And, of course, another valuable lesson which is a familiar one with movies of this ilk also crops up again in this story. That being... if you still have three heroes left at the end trying to kill the menacing molluscs of the title then, no matter how much of a nice guy or a family man any of them are, one of them is still going to get gorily eaten by the title creatures... who in the case of this film also turn out to be strong swimmers, somehow.

And there you have it. Slugs sounds like a terrible movie and it is. The performances are varied, ranging from just this side of acceptable to truly terrible and the pacing in some scenes is... well I’d have to say it’s quite sluggish in some places. :-) However, despite all this, I was grinning from ear to ear as I watched this shockingly stupid and therefore immensely entertaining movie and it’s definitely one I’ll be recommending to my friends. Potentially a star attraction for an ‘alcohol and a few movies’ night with your friends, as far as I’m concerned. As usual, Arrow do an absolutely brilliant job with the crisp, flawless transfer and it comes with the usual spate of cool extras which sets them apart from quite a few of the other boutique home video labels based in the UK at the moment. If you’re not looking for high art then... check out this movie and see how long it takes you to groan or laugh. Definitely worth a watch.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Jackie



JF’dK

Jackie
2016 USA
Directed by Pablo Larraín  
UK cinema release print.


My primary reason for wanting to see this new... I hesitate to call it biopic due to the timeframe... this new film about Jackie Kennedy in the week following the assassination of her husband is an old one which will possibly be a little familiar to some of my regular readers. Yeah, that’s right. I was there to hear the score. I loved Mica Levi’s compositions for Under The Skin (reviewed here) and I really wanted to know how her musical style would manifest itself and develop when writing a work for a more ‘real world’, grounded piece of art.

As it happens, I couldn’t see the film on the Saturday that I wanted to because, it transpires, even though this film has received various award nominations (including oscar noms), my local, 15 screen cinema deigned the film unfit for viewing at the weekend and, instead, decided to only show it on week days. Seriously Cineworld Enfield? So I went and saw it on the Tuesday night and, it has to be said, the audience was tiny. I could only think how packed out it might have been if it had been allowed to play on the weekend.

So, anyway, Jackie stars Natalie Portman as the aforementioned ex-Mrs. K, Jacqueline Kennedy, and it’s a performance which has to be seen to be believed. It’s an intense study and, not to downplay director Larrain’s excellent choices in terms of how he captures the various performances, Portman just pulls it right out of the bag and inhabits the character in ways that will make you even feel a little uncomfortably voyeuristic as you watch this woman interacting with the world around her at the height of her emotional grief. And she’s paired with some pretty amazing actors throughout, too.

The film is set in various different time frames from which the director cuts back and forth but all of these, strangely, apart from two sets of sequences being revisited throughout, are all from between JFK getting killed up to when Jackie is interviewed by a reporter a week later, after her husband has been buried. The film uses the reporter as bookends to the film but also a series of points to go to and from throughout the course of the narrative, as both he and the audience struggle to capture the essence of the turmoil she was going through.

One of the two major sequences which the director uses as a counterpoint to the misery of the main body of the film is a TV show about the Whitehouse which Mrs. Kennedy had starred in about a year or so before. This is something which, along with shots of the spectacular funeral she insisted on for her husband, is woven seamlessly into existing newsreel footage with the director going back to the same cameras used for the TV programme in order to splice Portman’s truly electrifying performance into context. In some ways, the constant flashes forward and back are a reminder of the kind of cinema wonderfully perpetrated by Nicolas Roeg although, whereas Mr. Roeg’s movies seem to deliberately use the technique in a brutal, bludgeonly manner to push a point or metaphor, Larrain has chosen far more subtle and seamless entry points in the execution of his reveals... and somehow he manages to get away with it pretty well, keying off relevant emotional peaks and troughs to introduce these excursions through time.

There’s a lot of hand held camera in this thing too... it’s mostly hand held, actually, and this adds to the sense of ‘fly on the wall’ documentary style of shooting... following the character around and catching things on the sly as Jackie tries to survive the death of her husband. It’s a method a lot of modern film-makers are adopting just lately, actually, and I first became aware of it, as I believe I’ve highlighted before, on TV shows like Firefly and the recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. In as much as the camera is being used to look at things and just ‘notice’ things rather than pre-empt the emphasis of a scene by dollying up to something in an ‘establishing shot’ mode... although there are a couple of moments when that kind of hypnotic style of shooting is also employed here.

And I don’t think there’s a single scene in this movie without Natalie Portman in it. Everything is seen with her as the main focal point and she does, as I’ve already said, an absolutely terrific job in carrying the film. Bearing in mind she’s going toe to toe with some great actors in this... none of them doing a bad job. Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman, Billy Crudup as the unnamed (in the movie) journalist and, especially, Peter Sarsgaard doing a terrific Bobby Kennedy... all absolutely marvellous but none of these giants any greater than Portman. It was sad, given his recent demise, but heartwarming to see acting legend John Hurt here, too, in a role which pitches him head to head with the title character and, frankly, Portman more than holds her own against this thespian giant, really proving to me that the actress who I first saw as a little girl/assassin in Leon, all those years ago, has gone from playing naively political royalty in the Star Wars movies to the equivalent political royalty of real life America 1963... and never given a bad performance... at least not any I’ve seen.

The presence she brings to the role here absolutely works with Larraín’s movie to provide an intense glimpse into one week of the life of an iconic public figure and this is beautifully accompanied by Mica Levi’s astonishing music. If accompany is the right word for a score this powerful, which gives me a little more of a clue into Levi’s stylistic tendencies, such as the use of powerful sliding note changes to, in this case, give a picture into the mental landscape of the title character as she pushes back against the absolute chaos and loss of control she must be feeling... as personified by the musical outbursts. You can bet this one was an instant purchase on CD for me (should be with me sometime next week) and I’ll be really upset if the score gets beaten by La La Land (reviewed here) at this year’s Oscars. It’s quite possibly the best score that 2017 (yeah, we get things late, sometimes, in the UK) is going to throw at me and the only score I can imagine equalling or surpassing this one may be Johnny Williams’ score for The Last Jedi when it comes out at the end of the year. But you never know... there have been some phenomenally good scores (some unreleased in an appropriate format) over the last half a decade.

Towards the end of the movie, Jackie Kennedy makes an observation to the journalist character interviewing her that the reason she has filled the White House with iconic, period pieces from prior residents or treasures authentic to the various periods of people in office, is because of the importance of history and being able to see and touch it. Artefacts are important because people can handle them and know the people who have previously handled these objects have faced adversity and had the courage to stand up to it... for example. Now, this really sparked something with me. The idea of the importance of material objects elevated by their associations is long something I have held in my heart but it also struck me as something very important to the format of the story too.

Here we have a movie which is, in itself, an artefact and, also, contains some footage, albeit morphed into a fictional content, from the actual time that these events were taking place (the White House TV show, the funeral parade). This film, like all others, will have meaning for future generations of viewers and the people who play the parts of the characters will be remembered through their work in these cinematic objects. Even as I was watching this on my first viewing, for example, I was remembering John Hurt and the body of his work leading up to this. I suspect that Jackie’s words here are something which may resonate with the director because films, in many different ways, are memory boxes filled with treasures for future generations who haven’t even been conceived yet. These are the ways, for better or worse, that our culture and era will be remembered. It’s not exactly an accurate legacy but it’s always going to contain, at the very least, the tone and idea of the truth of the culture that created it. So that’s something to remember in the quiet hours of the night when you’re next contemplating a movie, methinks.

Jackie is in cinemas now and, despite being nominated for the Oscars (I don’t subscribe to the idea of awards ceremonies), it’s a truly great little movie and deserves the attention of people who love the medium for what it is... the spectacle of life. Definitely worth seeing at the cinema and if you’re into music, definitely worth it for the score.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Batman - Return of the Caped Crusaders



Heading West to Newmar Kit

Batman - Return of the Caped Crusaders
USA 2016 Directed by Rick Morales
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Mild spoilers on some of the jokes.

Adam West and Burt Ward have twice before returned to the roles which made them household names in the 1960s. After the phenomenal success of the 1966 Batman TV show and its companion movie, they also returned in 1978 for the horrendous attempt at a new live action Justice League like TV show, Legends of the Superheroes (reviewed by me here) and, somewhat more successfully, playing themselves in an adventure story around a mini biopic in 2003 in Return to the Batcave (The Misadventures of Adam and Burt).

Although the Batman movie they did at the end of the first 1966 season has been fairly easy to see over the years, for many decades the TV show itself was trapped in some kind of legal hell with various companies holding bits of the rights, from what I understand. So no new merchandise, or even the shows themselves, were allowed to be sold in any format (although the bootlegs surfaced big time about seven years ago, as I recall). All this changed a few years ago when the complicated minefield of who owns what finally got unravelled, to a certain extent, and all kinds of merchandise and, of course, DVDs and Blu Ray sets, were finally released onto a mostly unsuspecting public...

And it all did phenomenally well. I used to watch the show when I was a kid so I was chomping at the bit to get clean transfers of the episodes but apparently a good deal of the tie in merchandise which they’ve been releasing over the last few years sells very well, from what I understand. This includes a Batman ‘66 comic book which continues the adventures of the TV incarnations in the medium which spawned it. Now I won’t go into just how truly ironic this is because of certain things introduced in the TV show which then became ‘Batman lore’ in the comics (I’ll save that info for when I finally get around to reviewing the TV shows) but it seems the comic is every bit the hit that the toys and gadgets released for the show were and so it maybe seems an obvious thing to do a Batman ‘66 animated movie.

I have to say, though, that until they announced Batman - Return Of The Caped Crusaders (and got it out quite quickly), I never saw that one coming!

And so we have Adam West and Burt Ward reprising the voices of Batman and Robin and, as a tasty bonus, they’ve also bought one of the original Catwoman actresses, Julie Newmar, with them. It’s quite cute, actually, when you see the three of them in the sound studio on the extras and realise that Julie was wearing pussycat ears during the recording session. She rocks! I also hear she still throws great parties, too. They also had a load of other fellows voicing the other three main super villains in this movie - namely The Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin.

Now, this is a hard review to write because it’s always going to be fun to watch a new Batman movie taking the camp style of the TV show with some of the original Bat-thespians plus other people mostly sounding like the actors they have been recast as. However, this is a mixed bat-bag in terms of my reaction to it although, for the most part, I took a really positive experience away from this. There are a couple of things that let it down, though, and I’ll get to those in a while.

So yeah, there a some things I did find lacking in this one, for sure, but what it certainly doesn’t lack is both a sense of fun, some imaginative and innovative scripting and... loads of enthusiasm and love for the original shows (it even has a Nelson Riddle-esque score). If you’re an old time Bat-fan then you won’t want to miss out on this one. Even my dad, who was the first to point out the flaws with this, seemed to be taking away something from it. There’s some great humour in here, as you would expect. And anyone who used to find the funny side in the absolutely ridiculous conclusions that Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, would leap to from the various dubious jokes, rubbish riddles and clapped out clues left for them... only to be proven right when they follow up on their loopy leads... will be happy to know that there’s more of the same here.

Yes, Robin’s “Holy...” exclamations are in here with a wonderful homage to Russ Meyer when he first sees Catwoman’s Catmobile and exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!”. Other stuff like the musical transformation into Thus Spake Zaruthustra (synonymous to many with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) when the dynamic duo fly their Bat-rocket into space, the bizarre architecture on the space station and the recreation of the ‘Bat ascent’ scene up the side of the space station are also pretty great. There are two of the famous Bat ascent sequences staged in this, though, and I was pretty disappointed that none of them featured ‘special guests’ popping out of windows to question the dynamic duo like they often did in the 1960s.

There are also some nice references to more modern, darker film and comic strip incarnations of Batman in the use of various lines of dialogue Batman uses when he gets transformed into ‘evil Batman’ by Catwoman’s ‘bat-nip’ potion and also in the use of colourful, onomatopoeia style word bursts synonymous with the Adam West show during the fight scenes. For instance, some of the words start of in the calmer sections with silly captions that read “Spork!” or “Sprang!” (the latter presumably a nice reference to golden and silver age Batman artist Dick Sprang) but when Batman becomes more ruthless and evil the bubbles change to things like “Bludgeon!” and “Pulverise!”. A similar nod and dig to one of the more modern versions of the character comes when Catwoman tries to make a deal with Batman near the end of the movie and tells him she’ll give herself up if he’ll give it all up and run off to Europe with her so they can drink tea in a café. They all agree however, that this would be a bad ending for their story... thus getting in a nice little poke at Christopher Nolan’s ending to The Dark Night Rises.

Another great joke to the format of the original show is where someone switches their TV camera to “fight” mode which just tilts said camera to coincide with those whacky, Dutch angles the old series would often employ to capture the action sequences. My favourite moment, however, is when Batman gets hit over the head in front of the Julie Newmar Catwoman and his vision goes funny so that he sees three of the Catwoman in front of him... however, the joke is that, with Julie in the middle, the other two images are of Lee Merriweather and Eartha Kitt’s incarnations of the character from the originals. Neat stuff.

However, there are a few little things which really let this move down for me, too. Adam West’s delivery, unlike Burt or Julie, sounded just a little slow throughout. Now, my guess is he wasn’t doing anything different with his voice to how he used to play it years ago and I suspect when you see the actual actor delivering the lines it looks fairly terrific but, when you put it against a flat cartoon, it kinda loses something in translation.

Also, the look of the characters and the way they sound caused problems for me in certain cases. Why do they have a fairly respectable looking Chief O’ Hara and the fake Irish voice to go with him, for example, when Commissioner Gordon, who also sounds like his 1966 TV counterpart, is drawn absolutely nothing like him and is, instead, the classic looking Commissioner Gordon, recently recreated quite well in the Nolan movies. Similarly, some of the villains sound great... the people doing the voices for Cesar Romero’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, for example, sound really quite good. So why does The Riddler look nothing like him? I’m not even going to mention The Penguin here.

Which brings me to my real problem with Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders. I haven’t seen any other recent Warner Animation movies as yet but f they’re anything like this then I may find myself steering clear. The animation is lousy. It’s not quite as bad as mid 1970s ‘made for America by Koreans’ cartoons but... it’s not that far off either. I kept waiting for someone to blink a bit to make it look like it was less lifeless. Now, I appreciate that because of the kitsch material the movie takes as its source, there was probably a conscious decision to simplify the animation style but, seriously, if you compared this to a 1940s Max Fleischer Superman short, the Fleischer would win every time. Now, as it happens, I think if you compared the 1940s Fleischer stuff to ‘any’ animation made in the last 30 or more years, the new stuff is going to come up short but, seriously, I was not enthralled by the animation on this one... even when they had some great visual gags on, for instance, the transition Bat-symbol scenes through certain parts of the running time.

All in all,  however, Batman - The Return Of The Caped Crusaders is still a big bag of fun and, once you can forget the not so great animation, you should be in for a good time with it. We even have Batman dancing the Batusi in the end credits, with occasional variants on the famous Batman The Movie “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” scene (although, again, you have to really know the movie and the 1966 character to get why things like this, with no other reference in the body of the current story, are here at all). If you were into the show in the 60s or were lucky enough to catch the 1970s repeats, like me, then you might want to spend some time with this fun, if a little flawed, tribute to those simpler times. If you have no interest or familiarity with the originals (nor why the originals came out in the first place... referenced nicely in this cartoon with the costumes from the 1943 and 1949 serials hanging up in the Batcave)... then you might be better off going straight to those originals before heading into this one.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Theatre of Fear And Horror



Gore Play

Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962 

Expanded Edition by Mel Gordon
Feral House (revised edition)
ISBN: 978-1627310314


Grand Guignol is one of those terms which I’ve heard bandied about in various critical writings on literary and cinematic horror works for a long time. It’s almost  an overused cliché (although I am more than happy to use it myself when it gets the message across) and though most people understand it and the origins of the term, it’s nice to finally be able to have a book which takes you briefly through the 65 year history of the venue and all that it stood for. I, myself, first became acquainted with the term when some very small amount of information on it was available in either the first or second room of the Museum Of Moving Image (MOMI) on the Southbank when it opened in 1988 (a wonderful, if not always accurate, film museum in London which was, shamefully, ‘temporarily’ closed in 1999 and subsequently never re-opened).

Now, thanks to the kind Christmas gift giving of a very special friend, I have explored the story of the shows performed there in this great book, Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962, by Mel Gordon. The tome is split up into a few interesting sections and the first one details the entire saga of the venue with a few notes about what it was before it played host to the horror shows and then going on to detail important playwrights and the varying attitudes of their works, plus the reception of those works with the general public at large.

For those who don’t know, the Grand Guignol was a theatre in one of the raunchier, perhaps I should say sleazier, districts in Paris which would run programmes of short vignettes, usually involving themes based around sexuality but, most importantly, often incorporating lashings of gory violence with the, presumably very skilled, performers having to get their timing and sleight of hand as good as any stage magician to be able to pull off the trick of realistic eye gougings, acid burns, cuts, tears, limb lopping and the like to a fully expecting, but not always necessarily prepared, public.

Named after Guignol, the popular Punch and Judy character from Lyons, the theatre and its programme was so popular in France that it was listed in guide books and had audiences flocking from all around the world to take in the, mostly, unique and horror filled sketches, night after night. The real acid test for the actors and actresses, though, was the amount of faintings they had per night as a benchmark of their performance skills. As the writer says, “Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals.”

A typical tale, as described by Mel Gordon, can be found in this brief synopsis to a seasonal play, for instance... A Christmas tale of a poverty stricken woman in the last stages of pregnancy, unable to find someone to take her in (as Mary and Joseph were able to in their day), murders her child and throws the remains to the pigs in the fields while carols sound from the neighbouring village.

And there are a lot worse, in some ways, than this kind of thing in here and that, I think, is why various writers and critics over the years have used the phrase to metaphorically describe the sheer visceral horror of certain scenarios in art.

Gordon traces the origins of this tradition and shows how the horror and sexual content escalated when new writers and owners were brought in. Originally the plays were conceived as being new, unflinching and naturalistic tales which, obviously, included these strong, graphic elements as part of their daily bread. He also mentions a particularly interesting performer called Paula Maxa who met with an unfortunate demise 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways on the stage of the theatre and was also the victim of a stage rapist attack at least 3,000 times. I would love to see a full biography of this lady emerge some day. As it is, the writer reprints, in a later section, a longish and autobiographical newspaper story of her early years from the time, although I can’t really hazard a guess as to the truth of the claims made by Maxa here. This amazing little article written in her own words certainly whets the appetite for more information about this sensationalist performer who seemed more than happy to play and wallow in the kind of unsavoury elements found in the plays in which she performed.

The book also tells of the complete failure, despite its quite unparallelled success in Paris, that the Grand Guignol met with when the plays and actors toured in other countries such as Canada, America and over here in England. It’s also implied that, in some cases, these failures were quite possibly brought about by the xenephobic critics who may have had something against the idea of the French coming to their country. It also cites various foreign censorship bodies watering down the content of the shows in their territories as another reason why the touring thespians were forced to close their doors due to poor turnouts before their full season had finished.

After the story behind the venue, its performers and plays, we then get a lengthy section of brief synopsis of around 100 of the plays... of which there seem to have been many thousands. The summaries are rarely more than one or two short paragraphs each but they do serve to give some flavour of the breadth of grotesque pleasures which were on offer on a nightly basis. It also makes one wonder why nobody has tried to bring back a modern version in various theatre districts around the world... I would love to go and see one of these disturbing evenings myself. Ah, well... burlesque seemed to be making a comeback a few years ago so, perhaps, someone will get around to Grand Guignol.

After this section we get an archival essay on the nature of fear and the way in which people lap up horror and death by one of the vignette writers of the time. Reading it, the justifications could have been written by anybody working for the old Universal horror movies in the 1930s and their direct cinematic descendents. Actually, the cinematic legacy is briefly mentioned in the book, in a chapter discussing the influences on films like Robert Weine’s The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (one of my favourites), which, it argues, owes as much, if not more, to Grand Guignol than it does to German Expressionism.

The book also has a number of attractively reproduced colour plates of posters advertising the theatre over the years and there are also a fair number of monochrome photos throughout, showing details of some of the acts (so if you want to see grainy pictures of actresses having their eyeballs seemingly pierced by knitting needles, then you will find that kind of stuff in here). This is all followed up, at the end of the book, by the reproduction of the scripts of two popular Grand Guignol plays, both of which feature some nasty deaths to various protagonists and antagonists. I’m reliably informed that the scripts are from different plays depending on whether or not you get this new, revised edition of Gordon’s book or an earlier version.

And the book then ends, quite abruptly, on the final grim moments of the last reprinted play.
A common problem when I read books on an aspect of cinema or some other topic in which I am, fairly, well versed is that I usually find lots of incorrect things passed off as facts and it mostly really annoys me. I found none of this in Mel Gordon’s tome and the writing style was quite accessible throughout. Of course, my unfamiliarity with the subject matter in the first place leaves me in the position of not being able to recognise any bloopers within the pages even if they were there but, heck, it’s just nice to be able to read a book and not worry about that stuff for a while.

Theatre of Fear & Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962 is a truly brilliant book and I count myself lucky to have received this splendid tome for Christmas. If anyone is already interested in this kind of horror theatre or has heard the term ‘Grand Guignolesque’ used to the point of insanity in various writings on the genre, then I would urge those of a sound mind to take a look at this volume. It’s an easy, uncomplicated read and it’s full of knowledge... just what a good book should be.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Split



Split In Image

Split
2017 USA
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
UK cinema release print.


Warning: Yeah... this pretty much has all the spoilers

Okay, so... if you’re a regular reader here then you probably already know my track record with M. Night Shyamalan is not all that great. He really gets me angry because, in almost every film, his ‘famous twist’ at the end is really obvious and telegraphed right from the start. The Sixth Sense, for example, takes only ten minutes to crack on first viewing. The Village was the worst one for that stuff though... it’s literally the second shot of the movie (which is a reverse shot to the previous if I’m recalling correctly) which is about 30 seconds or so into the film, when the trick ending is made pretty clear in the way the director uses his camera. So I’m not the biggest fan of his storytelling because it’s always so easy to pick up on and his last movie, The Visit (reviewed here) did nothing to change that opinion of his work. About the only time he did surprise me was in Unbreakable, where the nature of Samuel L. Jackson’s character was revealed at the end... so I probably have more respect for that movie than any of his others. I also liked Devil (reviewed here... although that wasn’t actually directed by him, just written from his story idea).

So Split was a movie I kind of put myself through because I quite like James McAvoy but I was pretty sure, on seeing the trailer last year, that it could only have one of two possible endings and so, even before I set foot in the cinema, I was berating Shyamalan for being too obvious. However, the truth be told, he seemed to be banking on me thinking that on this one and... well, I’ll get to that later.

As the trailer suggests, Split is about a man, played by James McAvoy, who is seriously schizophrenic in that he’s holding a multitude of split personalities in his head (23 or possibly 24, to be almost precise). He kidnaps three women, locks them up and is going to do something ‘bad’ to them. And so that’s the general idea and, after the trailer, I realised it could go either way on an ending.

I was pretty certain that one of these two options would be the film’s supposed twist here...

1. Every character in the movie, not just the obvious ones played by James McAvoy, would be another manifestation of his split personality... including the so called victims he had purportedly kidnapped. That seemed like a bit of an easy one even for Shyamalan, though, so my alternative was...

2. Near the end it would be revealed that McAvoy was, in fact, identical twin brothers taking on a large number of personalities each. While the victims had been talking to one or the other manifestations without realising they were talking to differently motivated sets of personalities throughout the course of the movie. This might have made things a little more interesting... was how I was thinking.

As the movie began, from the first shot in fact, I realised Shyamalan had probably gone with the easier option of nobody being real outside of McAvoy’s head. Certainly the way the film was shot and the isolation and lack of interaction in some scenes, plus the constant flashbacks to the abused childhood of the primary kidnap victim played by Anya Taylor-Joy (who was so good in The VVitch which I reviewed here and as Morgan, which I reviewed here) seemed to point right to this kind of denouement.

As it happens, though, M. Night Shyamalan did manage to surprise me but, alas, it was in the least interesting way possible. I had hoped the director may have come up with a third, much more clever option for an end twist but it was not to be. Instead, it was more of a surprise by ommission. Do you remember his movie Signs? I spent the whole of that movie trying to figure out what the explanation was behind the aliens in the movie. What the twist was that turned everything on its head and surprised the audience in an interesting way. However, Signs didn’t have a twist ending, as it turned out. Instead, it basically said that everything in that movie was to be taken as face value and we should just live with the idea that it’s a sci-fi movie. Which didn’t sit well with me, to be honest. Well, in Split, the director heads back to this territory in that there is no twist ending on this movie... everything is there to be taken at face value. Where Shyamalan does get a little clever, then, is by finally adapting his cinematic syntax to mislead the audience to a different conclusion from the correct one, rather than just passively let them ride along second guessing it. The red herrings of the mise-en-scene make the lack of surprise a thing in itself... so, okay, I can at least respect him for this.

I guess my one real grumble out of all this, though, is that just like Signs before it, this makes the film seem somewhat anticlimactic. I wasn’t very happy at the lack of twistedness to the plot here, it has to be said. However, Shyamalan does redeem himself somewhat with a little punchline moment at the end of the movie which, at least, changes your mind about the kind of movie you have been watching up until that point.

So... okay, good things? Well McAvoy is as good as you'd expect as various manifestations of the antagonist's multiple characterisations and Taylor-Joy is also pretty great here, it has to be said. There are some nice shot set ups which, when not trying to make you second guess a different ending, caters to the title with some nicely framed vertical elements which split the shots from time to time. So that’s all good.

The music by West Dylan Thordson is okay too, although I would have preferred to have seen Shyamalan carrying on his immensely creative relationship with composer James Newton Howard, who I think did his best work for the Shyamalan films. Especially since I think that in the last few seconds of the movie they've maybe re-used or tracked in an old theme from an earlier film. I’d certainly buy this score if it was made available in CD format but, alas, it seems once more that I’m not likely to hear it as a stand alone because the only way it seems to be getting a release right now is via electronic download (don’t do it kids... it sucks... make them give the music a proper release.

One of the more stand out moments of the whole experience is that it does have a nice little epilogue scene after the first couple of credits which do put a new slant on the way the movie has been playing out. You do, after all, see one of McAvoy’s personalities eating various people and walking around on walls and ceilings like Spider-Man and once it’s been established that this manifestation is not, surprisingly, in anybody’s head, it then delivers up one little nugget of an end coda which kind of puts the movie into perspective. That being that this whole movie was, in some ways, an elaborate set up for a new supervillain. Yeah, that’s right, it’s an ‘origin story’ for a character called ‘The Horde’. And this is what we take away from the last five or so seconds of the little punchline scene at the end. Set in a diner, some folks are talking about the escaped maniac and one of the diners says it reminds her of that guy that got caught years ago, but couldn’t remember his name. As the diners leave they reveal Bruce Willis in a cameo, reprising his role from Unbreakable and simply saying... “Mr. Glass”. So there you have it... if, and I doubt this but you never know, Shyamalan and Willis ever get around to making their ‘proper’ sequel to Unbreakable, we have a new supervillain for the movie. In the meantime though, this scene firmly identifies Split as an Unbreakable sequel so, for now at least, that’s what we are left with.

Other than that one truly bright moment, however, the film has a lot to admire in it but don’t expect too much from it and don’t expect a twist ending for sure. This is a fairly entertaining ride for a lot of the time (with the usual fun at seeing Shyamalan himself do one of his cameo appearances) but it’s not a great film like... um... well, like Unbreakable was. That being said, it’s not as chronically disappointing as most of his other films either (the jury is still out for The Lady In The Water because I haven’t seen it yet... it’s in the ‘to watch’ pile as I type) and it’s worth a watch for seeing the way McAvoy manages to manifest his various personalities. Not one I would be too bothered with seeing at the cinema but if you’re already a fan of this director then it may be something you enjoy. Not his best but, certainly, not his worst.